Into Ruins

post-phd thinking, writing, art, cartography, abstraction, Robinson Crusoe – risking appearing deranged – writing-as-thinking

Encyclopedic museums, argument, looting

“national museums are important instruments in the formation of nationalist narratives” (p.xix). In contradistinction to the national museum, Cuno suggests that the ‘encyclopedic museum’ has a different purpose – “That may be true of national museums, but it is not true of encyclopedic museums, those whose collections comprise representative examples of the world’s artistic legacy. National museums are of local interest” (p.xix) So on this definition the British Museum is an encyclopedic museum rather than a national museum.

Wikipedia says: Encyclopedic museums are large, mostly national, institutions that offer visitors a plethora of information on a variety of subjects that tell both local and global stories. The aim of encyclopedic museums is to provide examples of each classification available for a field of knowledge.

Cuno praises “the concept of the museum dedicated to ideas, not ideologies, the museum of international, indeed universal aspirations, and not of nationalist limitations, curious and respectful of the world’s artistic and cultural legacy as common to us all” (p.xxxii). The difficulty with this text is getting outside the persuasive forcefield of the writing and asking questions about the positions he puts forward. It’s not that information about the author’s position is hidden but you don’t get that sort of laying out other positions, the self-reflexive up-front-ness that you should be able to get with academic writing – not the cliché of objectivity or disinterestedness but the awareness of the situation. Is that really a value or a feature of academic writing? Maybe in practice it’s too varied to make a claim like that. But the thing I’m missing in this book is certainly any contextual sense of what other people have said about any of the issues (it’s almost like literature reviews are there for a reason).

Moving on, as they say. We are not exactly unearthing a historical materialist sensibility here, but we do have the useful point that taking the position that work must be done to limit looting (ok, work to limit it, fine) but viewing that as an answer would not be feasible: “Looting is not a leisure time activity. It is an act of desperation. And people living desperate lives will continue to loot” (p.xxxiii). This probably makes more sense with the acknowledgement that this book’s argument is mostly a case against the framework of international trade restriction agreements (on imports and exports) that are apparently intended to restrict illicit trade in antiquities, but that Cuno argues are wrongheaded because they’ve got their conception of the purpose and significance of antiquities all wrong. These arguments come a bit later on.

What else have I marked for interest? We do have an acknowledgement of how the general position of the book might be misinterpreted – “Some readers will interpret my argument as favoring museums in the developed, first world at the expense of those in the developing, third world. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

(Note to self – never use this phrase, god it just begs for a pedantic argument and is haughty)

That encyclopedic museums are currently predominantly in the developed world is not an argument against the idea of the encyclopedic museum.” (p.xxxiv) Indeed, he says, they should be everywhere rather than concentrated globally in this way. So what I’m wondering is about a good way to create a strong argument – I would call this a strong argument, in that it asserts a position, on both ‘current reality’ grounds let’s say, and aspirational grounds – this thing would be a good thing, this is what we should do, this is what we should be aiming for. And such a position need not appear achievable. So it’s rather refreshing to read a strong, unapologetic case being made, with confidence and vigour. (Ok more so in the ongoing sentence – “Indeed, the promise of the encyclopedic museum is an argument for their being everywhere […] wherever people are broadly curious about our common past” (p.xxxiv).) But I suppose my training(everybody needs a montage) suggests that a strong argument would be one that takes account of divergent positions and addresses them in some way at least – not to put paid to them but to – – I mean is the goal just to be more persuasive? Surely not – arrive at and share thinking that can have a useful place in the debates at hand, not just to win at having the most adherents. Is this just another version of saying academia should be a safe place for dorks rather than a popularity contest? Cuno does not really put the position he’s advocating for in context with other positions available on this issue – so it doesn’t have the strength of having shown comparatively why it is a better, more useful, or moral, or practicable, or necessary, position. It just asserts and persuades and all its examples and discussions are trained toward that persuasion. Well that’s probably too general but I’m trying to clarify what my impression is so far and what that’s based on that I’ve read. I should acknowledge that there is a very clear attack on ‘nationalist retentionist cultural property laws’ on pp.xxxv-xxxvi which we can get on to. Exciting times.


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This entry was posted on 9 January 2019 by in Uncategorized.
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